Giannis Is the Star, but Jrue Holiday Is the Key for the Bucks to Win the FinalsJuly 12, 2021
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the best player throughout the 2020-21 NBA Finals, and that includes the two losses with which the Milwaukee Bucks opened the series. But after Sunday's 120-100 win over the Phoenix Suns, it appears he may not be the key.
Despite being less than two weeks removed from a brutal-looking hyperextension of his left knee, Milwaukee can pretty much expect dominance from the two-time MVP. With his 41 points and 13 rebounds, he joined Shaquille O'Neal as the only other player with back-to-back 40-10 games in the NBA Finals.
Even with a similar performance in Game 2 from Giannis, the Bucks lost. And the obvious difference between then and now is Jrue Holiday.
In the first two Finals outings against Phoenix, Holiday averaged 13.5 points on 17.5 attempts per game. He was minus-19 over the two games. And in Game 2 alone, the number of layups he smoked didn't seem possible for an NBA player (especially one who was acquired for three first-round picks and two pick swaps).
On Sunday, Holiday was a completely different player (on offense, but we'll talk more about that distinction later). He finished with 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting. He hit five threes, dished out nine assists and was a game-high plus-22.
In the third quarter, after the Suns had shaved 11 points off a 15-point halftime deficit in just under seven minutes, Holiday rerouted control of the game back to the Bucks with timely shooting. He hit back-to-back threes right after the run and then added a third to bump the lead back up to 14 with a minute-and-a-half left in the frame.
Giannis sort of took it from there, but it was Holiday's momentum killers that paved the way for him to close things out.
This Jekyll-and-Hyde act from Holiday didn't just pop up in the Finals, though. He's been all over the production map this postseason.
Box plus/minus ("a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference) provides a decent illustration of the volatility.
Anything under minus-2.0 is considered the kind of production you'd get from an end-of-the-bench player. Holiday has had four such games this postseason (and another three with production around that of a bench player). On the other end of the spectrum, he's had four games in which he's played like an MVP.
And with a few exceptions here and there, the Bucks have kind of gone as Holiday goes. He's averaging more rebounds, assists and steals in Milwaukee's wins than he is in losses. His average game score ("a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game," according to Basketball Reference) is higher in wins too.
In the aggregate, though, Holiday has been a plus throughout this postseason. All the "Jrue Bledsoe" jokes of the last few weeks really aren't fair, even if some of the numbers look similar.
What shooting splits—and even counting stats like points, rebounds and assists—fail to show is defensive impact. And though stats will likely always fall short if truly measuring that, there are some that at least try.
In his three postseasons with the Bucks, Eric Bledsoe had a minus-0.8 box plus/minus. Even with his struggles from the field, Holiday is plus-1.8 during these playoffs. He has an overwhelmingly positive net-rating swing too. Milwaukee is plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions when Holiday is on the floor and minus-3.4 when he's off, per NBA.com.
Stellar on-ball defense, including on Chris Paul, has a lot to do with that impact. His playmaking helps too, but the way he can affect individual possessions without having the ball sets him apart from most.
Prior to the Bucks putting Holiday on CP3 full-time, the Suns point guard was averaging a minuscule 1.6 turnovers in the playoffs. In Games 2 and 3, after that switch was made, the Point God suddenly looked mortal.
When you combine that defensive ability with Giannis' all-timer production and even a dash of offense from Holiday, the Bucks look like a juggernaut, as they did Sunday.
When Holiday or Khris Middleton miss a bunch of open looks, it may be easy for some fans and analysts to forget that, but Giannis didn't waver after going down 2-0.
"I know he's going to be there when we need him the most and I don't worry about it," he said after Game 2. "He's a great basketball player. He's played great all year and he's going to continue to play great for this team."
Notice that he didn't say that Holiday is going to "start" playing great. Making shots is obviously important, but Holiday brings so much more. The contributions that come from effort will always be there. If the shooting sticks around, the Bucks have a heck of a shot at their first title since 1971, and Holiday will prove well worth the massive trade package.